Sacrilege

Raise your hand if you miss the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I know I do. I might be alone among purists, but I thought that Mosquito was their best record. Not everybody wants to hear their favorite punk rock band progress to recording with a gospel choir, but I live for that kind of fearless growth. I love a bold experiment even when it doesn’t succeed, and this one succeeded very much. I also think that you can’t underestimate the power of a well-placed gospel choir, and this is one of the best uses of one I’ve ever heard. I mean, it’s both totally apropos and kind of ironic. That’s musical growth, great production, total fearlessness, what have you.

Mosquito

Yes, it’s one of the most hideous album covers of all time (and not without appropriately disturbing videos, of course) but don’t let that throw you off. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have always been dangerously stylish, and pushing the envelope into questionable taste is inevitable. Don’t let the hype throw you off either. This might be their best album. (So far, though, so far!) They’ve been around a while; unbelievably enough, they were the cool next big thing way back in 2003. Being the next cool big thing, or the spearhead of the rebirth of NYC punk rock, or the indie darlings of the minute, can be a heavy burden, and plenty of bands have sunk under the weight of such titles. So it’s pretty exceptional when someone actually succeeds in becoming more interesting over the years. Karen O has showcased her range with a variety of side projects, both solo and in collaboration, and proved herself an artist with the diverse skill set and increasing maturity to stick around a long, long time. And does it not take a uniquely creative mind to write an ode to blood-sucking, disease-carrying, pestilent, hideous insects? Anyone who has that idea and then brings it to brilliant fruition is a keeper.

The Best of 2013

This time last year I was making a resolution to improve my life. Nothing too specific or unrealistic like ‘lose 15.85 pounds’ or ’embark on a fabulous new career’. Just work on making my life a little bit less shitty. And guess what! I’ve succeeded! I’ve improved my life in little increments all across the board. One of the most significant betterments of last year was I bought a car, after four years of shlepping it out on public transit. And incidentally, it’s because of the car that I’ve made another improvement. It’s been an unprecedentedly good year in music, and it’s because I now listen to the radio in my car that I even know about it. A little shout out to iHeart Austin is due here, for being a fantastic radio station that plays great new music as though it were actually popular. Last year I was so discouraged the shortage of albums I really loved I didn’t even do a best-of list. This year I’m doing an expanded best-of, and I’ve decided to make it a double-whammy, with separate lists for albums and singles. 

Albums

  1. The Next Day – David Bowie

The biggest and most important event of the year was, without doubt, the unexpected comeback of David Bowie. After a near decade of silence, he sprang a new song on us almost exactly a year ago, followed it up with an album, and continued to feed us videos throughout the year, all without saying a word to the press or participating in any of the usual publicity activities that are supposed to accompany a new release.

Where Are We Now?

The Stars Are Out Tonight

The Next Day

*Best David Bowie Song*  Valentine’s Day

Love Is Lost (Halloween Version)

I’d Rather Be High

 2. Random Access Memories – Daft Punk

If it wasn’t for David Bowie defaulting to number one, this would hold the top spot. It’s probably the album I listened to the most, and will have future associative memories of. In an age of electronic super-saturation, Daft Punk, the guys who helped precipitate the trend in the first place, did a complete one-eighty and made a disco album. Not a fake disco album, a real disco album, with no less than Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder bringing the authenticity. So old-school and yet so modern.

Get Lucky

Lose Yourself to Dance

Instant Crush

3. Reflektor – Arcade Fire

I’ve always filed Arcade Fire under ‘good but not that great’, but now they’ve finally graduated to being great. They’ve provided the best song of the year, which I can only describe as propulsive, and the rest of their hefty double album is pretty impressive too. Dense and ambitious both musically and intellectually.

*Best Fake David Bowie Song* Reflektor

Afterlife

4. Pure Heroine – Lorde

Witness the improbable overnight success of an Aukland teenager who sings with the sophistication of a woman three times her age. She might sound as though she sprang into the pop stratosphere fully formed out of literal nowhere, but Ella Yelich-O’Connor has been groomed for stardom by Universal Records since age 14. She is 17 years old now and released her first single and EP just last year, to immediate acclaim. That, my friends, is the best possible example of a record company getting it right, in terms of discovering and nurturing young talent. The amazing thing is that Universal has presented Lorde to us not as a commodity but as an artist. It’s pretty clear that she has an infinite future as such.

Royals

Tennis Court

Team

5. We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic – Foxygen

Psychedelic music is not dead! Foxygen’s third album sounds like it was funneled through a magic time portal directly from the Summer of Love. I suspect that the whole Haight-Ashbury vibe is pure pasticeh, but it sounds authentic enough that when they pop up on my iPod I fleetingly wonder what long-forgotten nugget from 1969 have I stumbled across. It’s also a reminder that a lot sixties psychedelia was total hokum, all awash with drug-fueled self-seriousness, and it’s really best enjoyed with tongue firmly in cheek.

San Francisco

No Destruction

6. Wolf’s Law – The Joy Formidable

Their name captures their essence. The Joy Formidable is high energy, with euphoric vocal hooks and catchy melodies and at the same time formidable aggression and heavy guitars. Original enough that I can’t instantaneously place who their big inspiration would be. Definitely one of the most enjoyable out of a crop of young indie bands breaking big right now.

Cholla

This Ladder Is Ours

The Silent Treatment

7. Woman – Rhye

Sexy bedroom music with a distinct sixties cocktail lounge vibe. The slow-burn torch singer vocals are so impressive and bring so much atmosphere. Imagine my shock when I found out the singer is really a dude named Milosh. Yeah, he always sings like that. I wonder if there’s some element of camp here that I’m missing, but it doesn’t feel so. In the end, knowing that I’m not hearing the sexy woman I first imagined but just some man with an unusual voice doesn’t detract from the overall effect of sleepy sensuality.

Open

The Fall

8. Isles – Wild Belle

A group that struck me the first time I heard them. Singer Natalie Bergman has a memorable voice, and she and her bandmate brother have a boatload of influences in play, from the reggae of Keep You, to classic soul and jazz. They’re definitely playing the retro angle – just see the videos.

Keep You

Backslider

It’s Too Late

9. Mosquito – Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Hideous album cover aside, this might just be the best Yeah Yeah Yeahs album yet. It’s certainly their most diverse. Still plenty of their old punk energy, but with lots of unexpected touches, like an elevating gospel choir. I don’t remember them being a particularly touchy-feely band in the past, so the number of emotionally naked ballads on this record is unprecedented. Turns out they’re really good at it, too.

Sacrilege

Despair

10. The Bones of What You Believe – Chvrches

Chvrches is another new electro-pop/indie rock band that appears to have a bright future, making uplifting catchy pop tunes that hit the sweet spot. Call them children of Blondie, if you will. They have an indie edge and an affinity for synthesizers, and a cool girl image in the person of singer Lauren Mayberry.

The Mother We Share

Recover

Gun

Area 52

I’ve already blurbed the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, but I don’t mind repeating myself. For one thing, I really like it. For another, I think this song is much more in their usual vein. That other one was awesome, and there’s some other heartfelt slow songs on the record, but I don’t believe that’s their comfort zone. Karen O came to fame as a twist and shout banshee with a wild stage presence (please don’t anybody say “Siouxsie”.) I don’t necessarily always want to hear that, but it’s cathartic as hell when I’m in the mood for it, and I can’t resist a good weird eccentric, as you all know.

Always

Lots of points for the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, despite the truly hideous cover art. They’ve been  a bit hit-or-miss for me, mainly because the hipster tendencies run strong. Karen O has done some projects that simply drip with ironic mustache juice, and that can be hard to stomach. (Faux kids’ songs for the strictly no-kids Maurice Sendak movie? BLERG!) But I gotta cut them a break, because when they’re good, they’re really really good, and the new album was an entirely solid one. They got their start as a kind of throwback retro-punk act with CBGB aspirations and they came close to going mainstream but never quite crossed that line, which is either an act of remarkable self restraint or a failure of luck. Mosquito shows several sides of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, from screamy and old-school to full-bore gospel choir, with some nicely emotional respites in between, like this one. It’s always fun to watch a band grow up and mature, and that’s what we’re seeing.

Hysteric

Ironically, one of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ less hysterical moments. Meaning that they’re usually way more uptempo, not that they’re hysterically funny or hysterically mentally unbalanced. Granted, I’m not intimately familiar with all of their work, but I understand that they’re not known for their introspection. In fact they were quite aggressively punky on their first couple of records. Then they got a little more, glitzy, shall we say, and broke big. Since that time I haven’t heard anything from them. It’s like they made the big time and decided to quit while they were ahead. The most recent thing I recall Karen O doing was the soundtrack to Where the Wild Things Are, the most egregious case of hipster-baiting pretension I have ever seen – seriously, those Wild Things have more neuroses than a Woody Allen clone factory. But I digress. What I’m saying is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were getting bigger and better, being lauded as the bright young things of 2009, then they kind of fizzled out and went off to do their own weird projects. Bummer.

Heads Will Roll

I’ll confess right here and now that I didn’t really like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs all that much before they went mainstream. I guess I liked them more when they got a little New Wave and not so much when they were more punk. If that makes me fail the hipster test, whatever, fine. I mean, I knew about them and I checked ’em out and I thought they looked better than they sounded. Then when they picked up a keyboard for It’s Blitz, that’s when they won me over. Their earlier stuff wasn’t bad but it just didn’t stick with me. It’s Blitz was definitely their best album and their most popular. I don’t know if they’ve broken up for real or if they’re just on hiatus, but they haven’t been playing since then, and all I hear about is all the busy little projects that Karen O and Nick Zinner are doing without each other. Makes you think, damn just when it was getting good!